Improvised Travel Adapters
2018, Ongoing. A series of pragmatic, temporary sculptures that repurpose objects commonly carried by travellers, allowing them to adapt plugs to sockets that would not otherwise fit.
Disclaimer: This is not a how-do guide, this is art. It is not intended to serve as an example for anyone anywhere ever. Please do not attempt this at home or away from home.
Text by Jayne Wilkinson
Metal chopsticks, tweezers, scissor blades, an earring’s twisted back, a paper clip—it goes against every modern parent’s warning to their children: don’t stick your fingers or anything else in these mysterious holes. You instinctively know that you aren’t supposed to touch them, but the risk and anticipation of physical shock, thrilling but potentially serious, makes sockets’ interiors so alluring. What actually happens if you jam something in there? How much current is enough to shock you?
The 21st-century internet has made us forever dependent upon the safety of an invisible electrical grid. The economy, and our ability to labour in it, relies upon electricity moving in fluid currents through a sea of devices—so many phones, laptops, tablets, speakers—demanding charge. Engineers might not think of it this way, but there is magic in a thing that can’t be stored or contained but is continually flowing and circulating.
A simple truth of infrastructure is that it’s invisible until it’s inoperative, functionally hidden but humming along beneath the surface of our view. Whenever there is a breakdown, whether it’s a power outage, a blown fuse, or a forgotten travel adapter, we’re reduced to the mercy of something typically ignored. Jon Sasaki’s Improvised Travel Adapters articulate the practical frustrations of finding oneself unable to charge a slowly draining device. These mini mises-en-scène show the diligent work of an inventive, and increasingly desperate, traveller. I imagine frantic movements as the character in this story quickly assesses their surroundings on arrival—which metal objects on-hand could be used to flow the existing current into a foreign device? These clumsily assembled ad-hoc charging stations—impractical and dangerous as they are—seem to suggest that an immediate, DIY solution to a perpetual problem could easily be found.
In some ways, this project is emblematic of Sasaki’s practice in general: a practical problem is solved in an unnecessarily arduous way, a conceptual conceit is made towards difficulty, risk and failure. Or, not failure exactly, since the implication is that all of these circuits are live, running an actual current. There’s an odd humour in the provocation that someone would do this, set-up their own circuit converter and risk electrocution by using tweezers, nail scissors and a charm bracelet just to temporarily charge a device. What urgency! Like much conceptual art, there seems to be sarcasm embedded in critique here, although it’s not really the joke-telling kind.
A hole in the wall is variously called a wall socket, an outlet, a power point, a receptacle, a wall plug. It is typically known as the female connector (because it has holes?) and this is the half that provides electricity. A plug is variously known as a plug top, a blade, a pin or a prong and is typically called a male connector. The typical descriptors of electrical connectivity (a barely-coded, gendered shorthand of plugs, holes and mating connectors) are here short-circuited and replaced with the traveller’s ingenuity, converting the language of foreign voltage into the practicalities of useful power. The repetition of objects and outlets giving and receiving electrical charges becomes oddly seductive—the obvious risk of electrocution, the illicit behaviour suggested by hotel room scenarios, the references to undressing, and all the pins and jewelry, earrings and chains, scissors, files, clippers and accessories one requires to be readied for an (anonymous) encounter. Whether in imagination or reality, a hotel room conjures the tensions of power inherent in sex and capital, the imbalances of control produced by money and desire. Deals are brokered behind closed doors with the same anonymity that allows for otherwise-taboo sexual encounters to take place, hidden from view.
In an era of instant communication, one which has created vast and complex global networks, the idiosyncratic necessity of converting voltage and adapting currents offers an awkward analogy for the experiences of globalization. The capitalist rhetoric of a borderless world is met with the very concrete experience of a border, albeit not a geopolitical but an infrastructural one. Untethered from the conveniences of home, attempting to charge an incompatible device recalls the psychic displacement of border crossing amid the physical dangers of attempting to fit in. The boundaries of nation states become most evident when the capacity to communicate, navigate, eat or sleep is interrupted by difference, and it’s no more obvious than upon arriving somewhere that won’t permit you to use your device as planned.
Globally, there are fifteen different socket types and, according to the International Electrotechnical Commission, there is no plan to enforce a single, transferable standard among them. The reason is largely related to the post-WWII boom in electric household appliances in the United States, since manufacturers developed different methods of connecting their new inventions with household wiring systems, which were still relatively new. International compatibility wasn’t an issue since the appliances that needed charging weren’t portable—the new toasters, dishwashers and fridges that became symbols of American economic success—and national markets were more important than global ones. Now, globalization has forced us to find ways to improvise these different currents and voltages, particularly as our most valued domestic “appliances” are the ones that travel with us everywhere.
In the world of Jon Sasaki’s weird readymade assemblages, improvisation doesn’t lead to invention, only to something that appears uncomfortable and cringe-inducing, if useful. Although I typically want art to be able to perform or predict its necessity (since viewing art so often feels self-indulgent), it’s hard to believe that these set-ups would actually work. That’s what makes them compelling, and strange. Assuming that they are busily charging something, even at risk of electrocution, points to the difficult ways that power, energy, and global infrastructure intersect. If they actually do work, their use-value confirmed and rationale laid bare, then the too-practical necessity of hooking up to an energy source is revealed for the difficult task it ought to be: translating a local context into a globally homogeneous effect should not come so easily.
Jayne Wilkinson is a Toronto-based writer and curator. She is currently Editor-in-Chief at Canadian Art.